Fifteen prisoners, including 13 from Portlaoise prison where many IRA inmates are held, had to be freed early on Wednesday morning, after legal advice indicated that detention orders made by the non-jury Special Criminal Court were flawed. They included Brixton prison escaper Nessan Quinlivan.
The fiasco arose when it emerged that one of the court's three judges, Mr Justice Dominic Lynch, was sitting while officially no longer a judge of that court.
His July request to step down had been approved by the government in August, but the judge himself, normally based in the circuit court, was not informed of the decision. It was after this that he made the orders which were subsequently ruled ultra vires.
Government embarrassment was worsened by the fact that the judge's "de- listing" was confirmed in an official publication.
Those brought back to the Special Criminal Court yesterday to receive remand decisions renewing their custody were five Londonderry men facing arms charges following last week's discovery of a primed IRA mortar near Malin Head in Donegal. Others involved are IRA suspects detained after the discovery of a County Laois bomb factory in June. Lawyers for the prisoners were last night seeking to challenge their continued detention.
A 16th man was yesterday released and re-arrested for the same reasons. Five others on bail may have their cases reassessed.
In the Dail, Mrs Owen was unable to say exactly why her department failed to inform Judge Lynch that his request to step down had been approved. She said a letter from the Attorney General warning her of the problem had not been brought to her attention. She promised a "full, speedy and impartial inquiry" by outside officials, but denied it was a resignation matter.
The main Opposition Fianna Fail party's justice spokesman John O'Donoghue said: "This would be a joke in a banana republic, and it's a joke in this republic. Someone is going to have to pay for it."
He urged her to "do the honourable thing and resign". Fianna Fail leader Bertie Ahern asked how the minister could have remained in the dark as it appeared the judge's predicament had been known to the Attorney General in September. The minister had said she had not been alerted.
Meanwhile, her colleague, the Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring, yesterday said John Major would be "big enough" to pursue the peace process - and resist any Unionist threat to bring the Government down by provoking an early election.
t An Army deserter who bombed a military barracks walked free from court yesterday despite being given a 14-year jail sentence. Peter McMullen, 49, who served as a cook with the Parachute Regiment, planted four bombs that rocked Claro Barracks in North Yorkshire 22 years ago after he joined the provisional IRA. He was released when a judge ruled time he spent in custody in the US while fighting extradition should count as part of his sentence.Reuse content